ESTEBAN JEFFERSON: My parents took me to Chelsea galleries a lot when I was growing up, and once we went to Dia:Chelsea to see a show of Fred Sandback sculptures. The sculptures are made of strings that go floor to curling to form open shapes, like a giant triangle or rectangle that feels like a window or a doorway. Being a little kid, I had a blast jumping “through” the shapes, like jumping into a new dimension. However, the security guard wasn’t amused and told me to stop playing with the art. That is my first memory interacting with visual art, and it has stuck with me. It makes me happy that now, probably about 30 years later, I have a show opening one block away from where that happened.
That does not mean your art is actually fun or playful. You describe your work as “documentary” or “journalistic," and your new exhibition at 303 Gallery is a good illustration. Still, do you consider your approach to art as playful?
I wouldn’t say playful… meditative though.
Do you think “producing” or “consuming” art should be a form of entertainment?
I think “art” and “entertainment” are not synonyms and are also not mutually exclusive terms. I don’t think art succeeds based on whether or not it’s entertaining, but I also don’t think that an artwork being entertaining, or having mass appeal, necessarily means it is not good. Being long and boring does not make an art experience deeper or better, for me.
I actually love to take my teenage boys to contemporary art galleries but most of the time they complain about it (hopefully it’s just them being rebellious). Do you sometimes wonder how a child or a teenager would enjoy or understand your work?
I don’t actively think about it when making work, but I think anyone should be able to get something out of my work. I was looking at contemporary art when I was a child (with my parents), and more so when I was a teenager, and definitely was enjoying it, whether I understood it or not (there’s also plenty of art that I don’t understand now). I enjoyed it so much as a kid that the security guard at Dia yelled at me!
When you work on a new piece or exhibition do you have your audience in mind?
I really just make the work for myself, but I hope other people get something out of it regardless.
You were born and raised and educated in New York and you still live here. Would you define yourself as a New York artist?
I don’t see how I could be anything else… I’ve never lived anywhere else, and I don’t have any plan to. Of course I want to travel more, but New York is home.
Your exhibition’s title at 303 Gallery is “May 25, 2020," and refers to the date of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Do you have any idea what you were doing that day?
I was in my studio painting (during the covid lockdown, my daily routine was to bike from my apartment in the LES to my studio in Ridgewood and work all day). I’m not sure if it was the same day or the next day, but I remember seeing the video online, getting really depressed, and calling my dad to talk about it.
What happened the following summer, the protests against police brutality in New York and around the world, will stay as a defining moment in American history. When looking at the preview of the exhibition, it makes me think of another trait of your work: it being “unfinished”. In many ways, the movement after the murder of George Floyd is also “unfinished”. Do you agree?
I completely agree. To me, that show is really about the protests being unfinished, or unresolved. The protests have had long lasting effects, which are explored in the show, but there is also a sense that many things have not changed crucially or permanently, which also is a subtext of the show.
Tell us about your relationship with music, as an artist.
I listen to music all day long, every day; it’s an essential part of my life. I am really thankful to be alive at a time when music is so accessible. If I could do it all over, I wish I could be a musician, but to be honest I have zero musical talent. Maybe in the next life!
And your relationship with nightlife in New York, as an artist.
I fell in love with London for two or three weeks, until it fully got to me how limited the nightlife felt. I love the ability to choose your own adventure at pretty much any time of night in New York; it makes that idea of living anywhere else unbearable.